The Miami Marlins made a signing amid heavy competition, having picked up utility man Jeff Baker on a two-year contract worth $3.7 million yesterday. Baker's role in Miami will be primarily as an off-the-bench bat and platoon partner for first baseman Garrett Jones, whom the Marlins correctly identified as requiring a legitimate platoon partner. Baker's versatility leaves him best for a bench role, but his ability to mash lefties should provide him more plate appearances than the average bench guy.
The interesting question for Miami is not necessarily whether Baker will excel in this role, but why Miami felt the need for a player in this role in the first place.
The Fish are not paying through the roof or anything for Baker, but this is not an insignificant investment for the club. The team is paying Baker $1.6 million this year and $2.1 million next season. That is about the same amount as the team agreed to pay in acquiring Jeff Mathis in the Toronto Blue Jays trade, and more importantly, it is a better deal than the team gave Greg Dobbs. Dobbs earned only a two-year deal worth $3 million from Miami to be a primarily bench player and pinch-hitter extraordinaire. Like Baker, Dobbs is a platoon-heavy player who traditionally never faces lefties. Baker is being paid more to play a slightly larger role for this club, so he has to be expected to be better than Dobbs and his poor impersonation of a Major Leaguer in the last two seasons.
Can Baker pull it off? He has never had an issue hitting left-handed pitching. For his career, Baker has hit .298/.353/.522 (.375 wOBA) against left-handers, which is equivalent to what Adrian Beltre or Jose Bautista hit last season. Just about every aspect of Baker's game improves versus lefties, as he strikes out less (20.1 percent versus 27.8 percent career), walks more (7.9 percent versus 6.4 percent), posts a better ISO (.224 versus .122) and a better BABIP (.339 versus .319). His work against right-handers is bad enough that one would consider him a strict platoon-only player; he has hit .236/.288/.358 (.285 wOBA) against same-handed pitching, equivalent to Mike Moustakas and Ichiro Suzuki in 2013.
In other words, if the Marlins sent him against lefties as much as humanly possible, they would have a halfway decent hitter. Steamer and Oliver are projecting a wOBA of around .315, and that may be close to league average. But it is worth noting that "league average" is something that the 33-year-old Baker has rarely been; despite having what appears to be strong batting lines throughout his career (career .267/.321/.420 line, .330 wOBA), his work has come primarily in hitter-friendly environments like Coors Field and Wrigley Field. Over the course of career, he has hit a line just about four percent worse than league average.
In other words, Baker is a hitter who faced ideal conditions in half of his career plate appearances but still managed to be a below-average hitter. The Marlins are also not paying for a defensive wizard; he has been a net negative for his career everywhere except second base and right field, and last year, he spent the majority of his games at first base. Overall, Baker is not a great player even in his mostly-platooned career; most projections have him at half a win to 1.5 wins per 600 plate appearances, likely for an average of one win per full season. Given that he would probably only rack up 200 or so plate appearances as a small-half platoon partner, the Marlins can expect 0.3 wins from Baker as a part-timer.
Did the Fish have to pay him a decent sum (for Miami) and give him a guaranteed second year just to secure a platoon partner? The Marlins had seemingly found their alternative in pushing Casey McGehee to first base and starting one of their utility infielders in Donovan Solano or Ed Lucas to third base in order to platoon for Jones. Now they get a better hitting but worse defensive partner for Jones. Overall, it is likely that Solano would have almost identical to Baker, given that he too has been predicted to provide about a win in a full season. Baker now forces Solano to a permanent bench role and takes up another spot. The team is now sporting essentially a first baseman in Dobbs (re-signed this season), one true utility player in Solano, a backup catcher in Mathis, the backup outfielder Brian Bogusevic, and Baker on the bench. None of those players have played center field for more than 200 innings in their Major League career, leaving the Fish with limited defensive options outside of the starting lineup.
The signing of Baker seemed unnecessary more than anything else. Solano probably could have managed to play very similarly as essentially Jones's platoon partner without the team investing almost $4 million and two years on a strict bench/platoon option. The club now sports three players who are mostly infielders and no players with good experience in center field on their bench. We will look later today to see how much Miami improved on their platoon with Baker in the fold later today, but the odds are against the Marlins having spent money on someone who will move the needle much.